Weeks 3 & 4 - Sewing Strip Sets

These next two weeks we're getting to the fun part - sewing the strip sets.

This part can be lots of fun, or a bit frustrating, so I have a few tips for you to make sure we land on the fun side.

For the first week of sewing strips, we're doing one half of the strip sets. This would be colourway 1 if you're using version A, or just half of the strip sets for versions B and C.

Next week will be the second half of them.

Piecing the sets

I find it easiest to sew all the bar fabric strips to their neighbouring background strips first, then putting the strip set together from that. But you can just as easily start at the top and work your way down one strip at a time. It's still the same number of seams, so one way is not saving on sewing time compared to the other.

I like to chain piece, so any way I can batch a few things without having to get up from the sewing machine after each seam is a bonus for me.

I would recommend making one set from top to bottom first, though, before doing any sort of batch sewing, just to make sure you know what you want to end up with.

Bar Code Quilt along - Penny Spool Quilts - strip piecing how to

So for my preferred method, I'll lay out the strips for a set on my cutting table in order, as shown in the pattern diagram, and then sew each bar fabric to the background strip beside it, then sew these subsets together to make a completed strip set. 

Bar Code quilt along - Penny Spool Quilts - strip piecing how to

But if you think you might get confused easily, just sew from top to bottom as it's shown in the pattern, one strip at a time. I did have to rip out a couple of sets because I had accidentally mixed up the order of the background strips, so definitely keep an eye on that.

Alternate sewing directions

First off, sewing long skinny strips together (or any strips, really) can lead to a lot of bowing, or arc-ing of your strip set. 

Strip piecing how-to for Bar Code Quilt Along with Penny Spool Quilts

You can see in this picture how the strip has bowed nearly a 1/4" to the left at both the top and bottom end.

To compensate for that, alternate the direction you sew for every seam. You can see an example of that in the video I've linked below, too.

This means you sew your first seam (for example, the 2" background strip and your first bar strip) together starting at the cut end of the background strip. Then your second seam (in this case that would be a 2.5" strip of background fabric) gets sewn on starting at the selvedge end of the background strip. The next strip of bar fabric will get sewn on starting at the cut end again, and so on until you have all 7 strips sewn together. This helps to even out the warping a bit.

Or, if you sew all the bar fabrics on first like I mentioned above, sew that first seam in one direction, then sew the seams to join the subsets in the other direction.

Scant 1/4" seam

The (in)famous scant quarter inch. It's one of those things you read about in patterns and quilting books, and until someone actually explains what it is, it's rather a mystery and has an air of overcomplication for the sake of sounding fancy :-)

So, what is it, and why do we need it?

A scant 1/4" seam is about a thread width narrower than a regular 1/4" seam. The reason we use it is to compensate for pressing seams to one side. When you press a seam to the side, one fabric kind of lays flat underneath the second fabric, but the other one gets folded in on top of itself, around the thread used to sew the seam. This fold takes up a wee bit of the fabric that should actually be visible on the front, as part of the design. You can think of it like folding a blanket in half over a pool noodle. If you just fold the blanket back, the edges opposite the fold will line up, but if you place a pool noodle where the fold is, some of the top half of the blanket is actually on the side of the noodle, rather than flat on top of the rest of the blanket, and the top of the blanket is just a bit too short to meet the edge of the bottom part.
It's not as visible in sewing, obviously, and if you're sewing together just a few large patches, that little bit of fabric in the fold doesn't matter much. But if you sew a lot of small pieces, it can add up to a significant amount over the course of a whole block. 

Bar Code quilt along - Penny Spool Quilts - scant quarter inch graphic by Kelli Fannin

This picture is from Kelli Fannin's blog, she has a really good tutorial and explanation of this here if you'd like to read more about it.

So to compensate for that extra bit of fold, we make the seam just a tiny bit narrower, so that by the time it gets folded, it is actually the full 1/4" width, and not more than that.

The easiest way to sew a scant 1/4" seam is to move your needle a smidgen - yes, that's a technical term ;-) - to the side, if your machine can do that. If it doesn't, take a ruler and put it under your needle and foot, to see where you need to line up your fabric to make sure you get a scant seam. You can mark that with a bit of painters tape on the machine, too, to help you remember, or use a magnetic seam guide. If your machine lets you move the needle, I recommend doing that. It's much easier to just keep lining up the fabric with the edge of the foot (or seam guide if your foot has one built in), and let the machine sew a scant seam, instead of having to remember with each seam that you need to line up somewhere else.


You can press the seams open or to one side, whatever you prefer. Pressing open can help if your strips end up too narrow after sewing, or your scant quarter inch isn't quite there yet. Open seams don't have that problem of fabric being folded over each other as much as seams pressed to the side do.

A trick I learned fairly recently is to "set" the seams first, before pressing the open or to the side. It means you press the seam while it's still closed, then open up the fabrics and press the seam again. Apparently, setting the seam helps the fibres in the thread contract if they got stretched going through the sewing machine. So setting them first means that once you open the fabrics to press the seam, the thread doesn't also shift at the same time. I think this is probably more the case for cotton thread than polyester thread, but I've noticed a difference especially when opening up HSTs that they warp a lot less, so I'm doing that with all my seams now.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that you can't quilt in the ditch if your seams have been pressed open because there is no fabric right under the "ditch". If you want to stitch in the ditch, press the seams to the side, or stitch just beside the ditch if you prefer to press the seams open.

Batch sewing

Bar Code quilt along - Penny Spool Quilts - batch strip piecing

As much as I like the bonus of staying fit from getting up after every seam, I also like efficiency, so I do a lot of batch sewing and chain piecing. For this pattern I placed all my strips in order according to the diagram like I mentioned above, but I placed the whole stack for colourway 1 together so I had 9 (for the throw) strips on top of each other. Then I sewed all the bar strips to their neighbouring background strips for all 9 sets, pressed them all, then sewed the subsets together in batches of 9 again until all the strip sets were done. This speeds things up, but do lay them all out in order after every press, because if you accidentally switch the order of an entire stack, there will be a lot of seam ripping, and I have no tricks to make that more efficient.

A hack for version C

I promised to show you a way you can save yourself a bit of cutting if you're doing the scrappy version with the short strips of bar fabrics. Because it would be a bit complicated to explain, I took a quick 6 minute video that you can find here if it doesn't show up below.


In short, it starts out laid out like this...

Bar Code Quilt along - Penny Spool Quilts - scrappy strip piecing how to

And ends up looking like this, ready to be cut into blocks just like the longer strip versions.

Bar Code Quilt along - Penny Spool Quilts - scrappy strip piecing how to

(did you notice I mixed up a couple of the strips during sewing? oops! Luckily, this is the rainbow scrappy version, so it doesn't matter in this case. And all the background strips are in the right place)


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